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Recent history suggests Ryan O’Hearn may still have a chance

He’s been bad, but he’s not yet out.

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Ryan O’Hearn #66 of the Kansas City Royals poses during Photo Day at Surprise Stadium on March 20, 2022 in Surprise, Arizona.
Ryan O’Hearn #66 of the Kansas City Royals poses during Photo Day at Surprise Stadium on March 20, 2022 in Surprise, Arizona.
Photo by Kelsey Grant/Getty Images

In October of 2021, before the dark and painful offseason that involved way too much discussion about labor disputes than I would have ever wished for, I penned a season in review about Ryan O’Hearn. I graded his season an F, and I did not mince words.

O’Hearn did nothing to validate his position on the roster and will probably be non-tendered this year. Relative to his MLB peers, O’Hearn doesn’t do anything well.

Does that seem unnecessarily harsh? It shouldn’t! Over the past three seasons, Ryan O’Hearn has simply been the worst semi-regular or regular player in baseball; among all players with 750 or more plate appearances since 2019, O’Hearn ranks dead last in Wins Above Replacement. And if you’re not a WAR believer, well, let’s just say he has the fifth-worst batting average, the second-worst on base percentage, and the eighth-worse slugging percentage.

Those numbers are simply unacceptable. You can’t stick in the big leagues by being that unproductive across a litany of objective offensive statistics while also being a poor performer by advanced statistics like Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, Fangraphs’ baserunning stat (BsR), and, yes, WAR. And to do all that as, primarily, a first baseman and designated hitter? The word “yikes” was nearly custom-made for this situation.

And yet! Yet. Here we are, in another Arizona spring, with O’Hearn once again looking mighty fine somewhere other than for the Kansas City Royals during the regular season. As I write this, O’Hearn sports a cool 1.519 OPS in 17 Cactus League plate appearances with a pair of homers in his most recent game.

O’Hearn has traditionally done well in Arizona. Last year, he had a .934 OPS. The year before, O’Hearn put up an impressive 1.252 OPS. And every time he does this, talk of a “swing change” or an “adjustment” inevitably bubbles up, along with a commitment to improving and a suggestion that this time is different.

“He has always worked hard,” Cummings said, “but this was a different level.”

Ask Royals bench coach Pedro Grifol, who sat in a conversation among O’Hearn and hitting coach Terry Bradshaw at the end of the season.

“O’Hearn put in some work,” Grifol said.

Or ask O’Hearn himself.

“There was definitely a lot of work done in the offseason,” O’Hearn said. “When you have a season like I did last year, I’m fortunate enough the organization has given me a chance to show that’s not who I am.”

O’Hearn’s Weighted Runs Created Plus was 68 in 2019, meaning he hit 32% worse than league average. Unfortunately for him, he was who we thought he was by hitting a wRC+ of 65 in 2020, a season he hit 35% worse than league average. O’Hearn then put up a wRC+ of 70 in 2021, or 30% worse than league average. But wait! O’Hearn is doing well in a couple dozen plate appearances in Surprise, Arizona! Could this be the year?

You’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical. In professional sports, your job performance is both quantifiable and public. O’Hearn’s job performance does not suggest that he can be a good baseball player. Would I rather O’Hearn be great? Of course! Social media is an extraordinarily sharp double-edged sword, and negative responses can be truly demoralizing to a struggling player like O’Hearn, who is just out there trying to do his job and be better at it. I want him to succeed!

Unfortunately for O’Hearn, “letting his bat do the talking” has simply not worked, for his bat has rambled incoherently for three seasons. So, I turned to history to dispel a myth for good: that Ryan O’Hearn could be good after being so bad for so long. So, I took a look at every three-year stretch between 2000 and 2021 where a batter had 750 or more plate appearances to see if any batters had been as bad as O’Hearn and then later had a similar streak of league average or better offense.

The results surprised me.

Surely, nobody had turned a huge stretch of terrible offense into a legitimate stretch of above-average offense. And yet, recent history suggests that was possible. I filtered over 3500 rows in Microsoft Excel down to a list of players who had at least one three-year stretch with a wRC+ under 70 and a later three-year stretch with a wRC+ over 100. There weren’t just a couple names—there were nine.

MLB Glow-Ups

Player Years Games PA wRC+ WAR
Player Years Games PA wRC+ WAR
Brandon Inge 2001-2003 278 919 51 0.4
Brandon Inge 2004-2006 450 1753 101 9.2
Carlos Gomez 2007-2009 348 1102 68 4.0
Carlos Gomez 2011-2013 378 1300 110 11.4
Cristian Guzman 2004-2006 287 1116 64 0.6
Cristian Guzman 2006-2008 184 804 110 4.2
Dioner Navarro 2009-2011 227 754 56 -0.5
Dioner Navarro 2012-2014 252 859 111 1.8
DJ LeMahieu 2012-2014 339 1219 70 0.9
DJ LeMahieu 2015-2017 451 1937 105 8.3
Luis Valbuena 2009-2011 211 752 68 -1.5
Luis Valbuena 2012-2014 347 1241 102 6.0
Marlon Byrd 2004-2006 263 865 70 -0.5
Marlon Byrd 2006-2008 309 1144 108 6.0
Michael Barrett 2000-2002 338 1231 67 -1.4
Michael Barrett 2003-2005 337 1235 100 5.4
Yadier Molina 2005-2007 354 1278 69 2.3
Yadier Molina 2009-2011 415 1583 105 16.0
Ryan O'Hearn 2019-2021 231 756 68 -2.1
Ryan O'Hearn ? ? ? ? ?

Now, some of these names have a leg up on O’Hearn because of other skills. Brandon Inge, Carlos Gomez, DJ LeMahieu, and Yadier Molina generated defensive value even when they weren’t hitting, and adding solid offense to their game turned them into legitimately above-average players. But they—along with the other names on this list—were able to be productive hitters even after they had shown a multi-year stretch of offensive futility.

I fully expected O’Hearn’s poor performance over the last three years to be a historical signifier that he could never rebound to become an above-average hitter. That’s not the case. Even worse offensive performers have turned around their careers on a dime. To be clear: O’Hearn’s road is rocky, and his margin for error is minuscule. But such career turnarounds have happened in the past, and if it has happened in the past, it can happen again.